Good Will and Its Limits in Somalia

New York Times op-ed

Four hundred U.S. Army Rangers arrived in Somalia yesterday, bolstering the 25,000 U.N. troops already there as part of a peacemaking effort that will cost more than $1.5 billion this year. At the same time, the U.N. and private development groups are scaling back handouts of free food, replacing them with food-for-work projects that will in turn be replaced with cash-for-work projects.

On the surface, this seems very positive: The food emergency is over. The harvest, largely sorghum but also other produce, looks good. Charity is being phased out.

Yet these well-meaning policies will only help to re-create the situation that led to the food shortage in Somalia in the first place. The food that Somali workers will be receiving from agencies like CARE and the Red Cross will be imported wheat, rice and other commodities. And when workers are paid, the funds will have been raised by selling donated food on the open market.

The U.N. euphemistically calls this process "monetization." Whatever it is called it will have the effect of undermining agriculture, hobbling commercial distribution networks and keeping the country dependent on imported food. CARE alone has sold $5 million worth of wheat flour on the Somali market.

A CARE spokesman in Mogadishu told me that wheat is not grown in the country and therefore does not compete directly with the crops grown by Somali farmers. But someone whose belly is full of wheat flour is not likely to spend money on local sorghum. The spokesman conceded that CARE would do better to use cash to pay Somali workers, but he said it's much easier to get donations of food than cash. Food is plentiful and in surplus around the world. Cash is tight. As he was explaining this, U.S. Blackhawk helicopters thundered overhead. The price of one flight: about $2,000.

In 1980, I began one of the earliest food-for-work projects in East Africa. After a year it was obvious the project didn't work. Because the food is free to the donors, its value is debased. Such projects tend to be make-work excuses for giving away food. This seems to be the case in Mogadishu today where food-for-work consists of giving people empty garbage bags and then trading a bag of food for a bag of trash. Much of Mogadishu has been reduced to rubble, but it's fairly clean -- Somalis don't waste much. The project is likely to turn into a scavenger hunt with people looting garbage trucks as they once looted food convoys.

Donors putting up their own cash would probably put more effort into designing projects. They might tend to see their projects as investments, and create enterprises that would produce real income and eventually become self-sustaining -- saving money in the long run. And once the workers themselves see that the projects produce income, they would have a stake in continuing them, even after the donors leave.

CARE now has 5,200 Somalis receiving food and involved in public works projects. None of the projects will lead to full-time employment or become self-sufficient, and none will survive if new fighting cuts off food supplies and forces aid workers out of the country again. Africa is littered with the ruins of such projects. Somalis are paid to do them but have no personal stake in them.

Unfortunately, relief groups are more adept at delivering charity than they are in building institutions. Groups looking for a model of successful development in Mogadishu might take a closer look at the port where they go to collect food from the ships. Eddie Johns, a former chief warrant officer in the U.S. Army and now employed by the U.N., is trying to run the port solely from fees paid by shippers. Mr. Johns employs 450 Somali workers, paying them in cash. His goals are modest: to hand over a self-sustaining enterprise to a Somali government -- someday.

Unfortunately, commercial development in the rest of the country is being crippled by the continued dumping of surplus commodities, adding economic destabilization to the political crisis. And while the U.N. is raising billions for its military operations, it is investing nothing in building Somalia's economy.

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